The Women’s Sacrifice

A Santhal Pargana Tale

translated by Cecil Henry Bompas

This is a story of the old days when the Santals both men and women were very stupid. Once upon a time the men of a certain village had fixed a day for sacrificing a bullock; but the very day before the sacrifice was to take place, the Raja’s sipahis came to the village and carried off all the men to do five days forced labour at the Raja’s capital. The women thus left alone suffered the greatest anxiety; they thought it quite possible that their husbands and fathers would never be allowed to return or even be put to death; so they met in conclave and decided that the best thing they could do would be to carry out the sacrifice which the men had intended to make and which had been interrupted so unexpectedly.

So they made haste to wash their clothes and bathe, and by way of purification they fasted that evening and slept on the bare ground. Then at dawn they made ready everything wanted for the sacrifice and went to the jungle with the bullock that was to be the victim. There at the foot of a sal tree they scraped a piece of ground bare and smeared it with cow dung; then they put little heaps of rice at the four corners of a square and marked the place with vermilion; then they sprinkled water over the bullock and led it up to the square.

But here their difficulties began for none of them knew what incantations the men said on such an occasion; they wasted a lot of time each urging the other to begin, at last the wife of the headman plucked up courage and started an invocation like this: “We sacrifice this bullock to you; grant that our husbands may return; let not the Raja sacrifice them but grant them a speedy return.” Having got as far as this she wanted the other women to take a turn, but they said that her invocation was capital and quite sufficient; and they had better get on to the sacrifice at once. Easier said than done; they none of them knew how to do it; as they all hung back the headman’s wife scolded them roundly and bade them take the axe and kill the beast; then they all asked where they were to strike the animal: “Where its life resides,” said the headman’s wife. “Where is that,” asked the women. “Watch and see what part of it moves,” answered she, “and strike there.” So they looked and presently the bullock moved its tail: “That’s where its life is,” shouted they; so three or four of them caught hold of the rope round the animal’s neck and one woman seized the axe and struck two blows at the root of the animal’s tail. She did it no harm but the pain of the blow made the bullock pass water. “See the blood flowing,” cried the women, and eagerly caught the stream in a vessel; then the sacrificer dealt another blow which made the bullock jump and struggle until it broke loose and galloped off. The women followed in pursuit and chased it through a field of cotton; the bullock knocked off many of the ripe cotton pods and these the women thought were lumps of fat fallen from the wounded bullock, so they took them home and ate them; such fools were the women in those days.